Iraqi Christians flee a war that promised freedom |

Iraqi Christians flee a war that promised freedom

“We have a proverb, ‘After Saturday comes Sunday,’ which means countries that kick out their Jews eventually come after their Christians, too,” Iraqi Christian Salim Hasan Michael said. “I worry that Iraq’s Sunday has already begun.”Jews, who felt the brunt of Islamic hostility, largely migrated from Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s. Now, Christians who identify with ancient Assyrian and Chaldean followers of Christ are fleeing Iraq to save their lives. They settle into neighboring Arab states, where they find refuge. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that, although Christians compose only about 5 percent of Iraq’s population, nearly 40 percent have streamed across their former homeland’s borders.Chaldean Christians, who called Iraq home 600 years before Islam set down its roots there, only partly identify with a description of refugees the book of Hebrews records. “We who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope before us,” Hebrews 6:18. Though pastors on Sunday mornings beg them to stay in their homeland, many Chaldean Christians have given up hope. Their Islamic neighbors bully them and threaten them with torture. Chaldeans are not encouraged to stay.Sadly ironic, isn’t it, how a war the militirisitic Bush team started to bring freedom to the Middle East is the very instrument evicting Chaldean Christians from their homeland? When Iraq’s violence ignited in bloody firestorms after the 2003 U.S. invasion, Islamic militias blew up churches and sacked Chaldean homes. Then Sunni militants, who control most of the U.S.-endorsed government, ordered Christians to pay jizya – a “donation” to fund their insurgency. If Chaldeans didn’t pony up the cash, they became prime targets for the militias. No wonder 10 of Baghdad’s 80 churches have closed. More than half of the city’s Christian population has fled the terror.When the war started, most prominent evangelical leaders in the U.S. strongly supported George W. Bush. They liked his muscular Christianity. Still, the prominent National Association of Evangelicals didn’t rubber-stamp Bush’s heated rhetoric, florid with biblical overtones, to stamp out evil in Iraq and replace it with freedom. The president was warned early on how a mass exodus of Christians would occur if he prematurely invaded Iraq.Voices in the NAE predicted the horrors that Chaldean Christians would endure if a U.S.-led war erupted. The NAE’s leaders broke ranks from Bush’s military hawks, choosing not to endorse the war at their October 2002 board meeting. Their newsletter reports how “(staying neutral on the war) has proven wise. Iraqi Christians live – and die – in fear. They are targeted for robbery, extortion and kidnapping because of their perceived wealth and the belief that they likely have foreign relatives with money. Christians also suffer from insurgent and sectarian violence. Carl Moeller of Open Doors USA said, ‘Christians find themselves literally caught up in the crossfire. Iraqi Christians tell wrenching stories that are repetitive in their barbarity: fathers murdered, children killed and maimed, relatives kidnapped and tortured, families imprisoned at home, businesses destroyed, jobs lost, churches abandoned.'”Is there a lesson here?” the NAE asks of its evangelical constituency, once gung-ho for the president’s aim to topple Saddam Hussein. “We need to recognize the power of culture and religion. In retrospect, any expectation of easily planting liberal democracy abroad was naive, ignoring very deep suspicions of American power.”Thomas Jefferson believed a growing, educated middle class must be in place before a republic flourishes. Chaldean Christians provided strength for the formation of a middle class in Iraq. Without it, the democratic experiment in Iraq will be slow in coming, if it appears at all. That’s because Islamic parties, which don’t get along, and Islamic clerics, who stir up agitation against the U.S, dominate the government.Then a vicious cycle, spinning like a tornado, will wreck a fledgling republic. These sects and their clerics, who uphold Islamic law, will severely restrict personal freedom. Militias competing for political power will ratchet up Islamic laws curtailing freedom, particularly against women.Chaldean Christians acted like a buffer to soften the clerics’ barbs and the Iraqi militias’ raids. With their mounting exodus, Iraq has lost valuable citizens desperately needed to make democracy work in this land where iron-fisted rulers held power for centuries. In fact, Sunni and Shiite militias have murdered the Chaldeans because, in the past they had sided with the U.S., giving speeches friendly to our cause and aiding our soldiers when pacifying neighborhoods.”Fundamentalism is very dangerous for everyone in Iraq, including the Muslims,” declares Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman, the senior Roman Catholic prelate in Iraq, “because it takes away people’s freedom to choose how to live their lives and instead says that everything must be decided by religion.”Most U.S. Christians aren’t aware how a war started by evangelical President Bush has severely weakened Christianity in Iraq. Our war to save Iraq so that Christian freedom could flourish has accomplished the opposite. It has destroyed an effective Chaldean Christian witness. The war has put Chaldeans on the run, bereft of a homeland in which to practice their faith.The Rev. Jack Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the tax-exempt, nonprofit Creative Growth Ministries, which enhances Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentation. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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